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   Chapter 16 CAPTAIN BRANSCOME'S CONFESSION—THE FLAG AND THE CASHBOX.

Poison Island By Arthur Quiller-Couch Characters: 18100

Updated: 2017-11-30 00:03


"Well, ma'am," resumed Captain Branscome, "so strong was the likeness to old Coffin, and yet so incredible was it he should be in these parts, that, almost without stopping to consider, I turned down the lane on the chance of another glimpse of the man. This brought me, of course, to the stile leading into the plantation; but the path there, as you know, takes a turn among the trees almost as soon as it starts, and runs, moreover, through a pretty thick undergrowth. The fellow, whoever he was, had disappeared.

"I can't say but what I was still puzzled, though the likeliest explanation-indeed, the only likely one-seemed to be that my eyes had played me a trick. I had pretty well made up my mind to this when I turned away from the stile to have a look at the garden gate on the other side of the lane; and over it, across the little stretch of turf, I caught sight of the summer-house and of Major Brooks standing there in the doorway with a bundle between his hands-a bundle of something red, which he seemed to be wrapping round with a piece of cord.

"Here, then, was the very man I had come to see; and here was a chance of getting speech with him and without the awkwardness of asking it through a servant, perhaps of having to invent an excuse for my visit. Without more ado, therefore, I made bold to lift the latch of the gate and step into the garden.

"At the sound of the latch-I can see him now-Major Brooks lifted his head with a curious start, and tucked the bundle under his arm. The movement was like that of a man taken at unawares, and straightening himself up to meet an attack. I cannot describe it precisely, but that was just the impression it made on me, and it took me aback for a moment, so that I paused as the gate fell-to and latched itself behind me.

"'Halt there!' the Major commanded, facing me full across the turf. 'Halt, and tell me, please, why you have come back!'

"This puzzled me worse for a moment, for the light was good, though drawing towards sunset, and it seemed impossible that, looking straight at me, he could mistake me for the man who had just left the garden. Then I remembered what Harry had told me of his father's blindness.

"My silence naturally made him more suspicious.

"'Who is it there? Your name, please?' he demanded sharply.

"' Sir,' I answered, 'I beg your pardon for coming thus unannounced, but my name is Branscome, and I had once the honour to be shipmate with you on board the Londonderry transport.'

"For a while he continued to stare at me in his blind way.

"'Yes,' he said slowly, at length; 'yes; I remember your voice, sir. But what in the name of wonder brings you to my garden just now?'

"'Your son Harry, sir,' said I, 'some time ago gave me a message from you. If ever (he said) I found myself in the neighbourhood of Minden Cottage you would be pleased to receive a visit from me.'

"'Yes,' said he, but still with a something in his voice between wonder and suspicion; 'that's true enough. I have always retained the highest respect for Captain Branscome, and by your voice you are he. But-but-' He hesitated, and fired another question point-blank at me: 'You come from Falmouth?'

"'I do, sir.'

"'Alone?'

"'Yes, sir. I have walked all the way from Falmouth, and without a companion.'

"'Look here, my friend,' he said, after seeming to ponder for a moment, 'if you mean ill, you must have altered strangely from the Captain Branscome I used to know, and if you mean well you have timed your visit almost as strangely.' He paused again. 'Either you know what I mean, or you do not; if you do not, you will have to forgive a great deal in this reception; and you will, to begin with, forgive my asking you, on your word of honour, if on your journey hither you have overtaken or met or recognized any one hailing from Falmouth. You do not answer,' he added, after yet another pause.

"'Why, as to that, sir,' said I, 'since leaving Falmouth I have neither met nor overtaken any one of my acquaintance. But, since you put it to me precisely, I will not swear that I have not recognized one. A few minutes ago, standing at the head of the lane here, I saw a man cross it, presumably from this garden, and take the path leading through the plantation yonder. It certainly strikes me that I knew the man, and I followed him down the lane here to make sure.'

"'Why?' the Major asked me.

"'Because, sir,' said I, 'it did not seem possible to me that the man I mean could have any business here; besides which, an hour or two before leaving Falmouth I had passed him in the street, and though he had, indeed, the use of his legs, he was too far gone in liquor to recognize me.'

"'His name?' the Major asked.

"'Coffin, sir,' said I; 'usually known as Captain Coffin, or Captain Danny.'

"'A drunkard?' he asked.

"'A man given to liquor,' said I, 'by fits and starts; but mild enough in an ordinary way. You might call him the least bit touched in the upper story; of a loose, rambling head, at all events, as I can testify, who have taught him navigation-or tried to.'

"The Major, though he could not see me, seemed to study me with his blind eyes. He stood erect, with the bundle clipped under his left arm; and the bundle I made out to be a flag, rolled up and strapped about with its own lanyard.

"'One more question, Captain Branscome,' said he. 'This Captain Coffin, as you call him-is he, to the best of your knowledge, an honest man?'

"I answered that I had heard question of Coffin's sanity, but never of his honesty.

"'His sanity, eh?' said the Major; and I could see he was hung in stays, but he picked up his wind after a second or two, and paid off on another tack. 'Well, well,' he said, 'we'll drop talking of this Coffin, and turn to the business that brings you here. What is it? For I take it you've walked all the way from Falmouth for something more than the sake of a chat over old times.'

"I remember, ladies, the words he used, though not the tone of them. To tell the truth, though my ears received 'em, I was not listening. I stood there, wishing myself a hundred miles away; but his manner gave me no chance to fob him off with an excuse, or pretend I had dropped in for a passing call. There was nothing for it but to out with my story, and into it I plunged somehow, my tongue stammering with shame. He listened, to be sure, but without offering to help me over the hard places. Indeed, at the first mention of my poverty, I saw all his first suspicions-whatever they had been-return and show themselves in his blind eyes. His mouth was set like a closed trap. Yet he heard me out, and, when I had done, his suspicions seemed to have faded again, for he answered me considerately enough, though not cordially.

"'Captain Branscome,' he said, 'I may tell you at once that I never lend money; and my reason is partly that good seldom comes of it, and partly that I am a poor man-if you can call a man poor who is by a few pounds richer than his needs. But I have a great respect for you'-the ladies will forgive me for repeating his exact words-'and your voice seems to tell me that you still deserve it; that you have suffered more than you say before being driven to make this appeal. I can do something-though it be little-to help an old comrade. Will you oblige me by stepping into the summer-house here, and taking a seat while I go to the house? I will not keep you waiting more than a few minutes.'

"He picked up his walking-stick, which rested against a chair, just within the doorway, and stood for a moment while I stepped past him and entered the summer-house; and so, with a nod of the head, turned and walked towards the house, using his stick very skilfully to feel his path between the bushes, and still keeping the flag tucked under his left arm.

"So I sat and waited, ladies, on no good terms with myself. The way of the borrower was hard, I found, and the harder because the Major's manner had not been unkindly, but-if you'll understand my meaning- only just kindly enough. In short, I don't know but that I must have out and run rather than endure his charity, had not my thoughts been distracted by this mystery over Captain Coffin. For the Major had said too much, and yet not enough. The man I had seen crossing the lane was certainly Coffin, but to connect him with Minden Cottage I had no clue at all beyond the faint one, Harry, that you and he were acquaintances. Besides, I had seen him, the morning before, in the crowd around the prisoners, and could have sworn he was then-saving your presence, ladies-as drunk as a fiddler. If vehicle had brought him, it could not be any that had passed me on the road, or for certain I should have recognized him. Well, here was a riddle, and I had come no nearer to guessing it when the Major returned.

"He had left his bundle in the house, and in place of it he carried a cashbox, which he set on the table between us, but did not at once open. Instead, he turned to me with a complete chan

ge of manner, and held out his hand very frankly.

"'I owe you an apology, Captain,' said he. 'To be plain with you, at the moment you appeared, I was half expecting a different kind of visitor, and I fear you received some of the welcome prepared for him. Overlook it, please, and shake hands; and, to get our business over,'-he unlocked the cashbox-'here are ten guineas, which I will ask you to accept from me. We won't call it a gift; we will call it an acknowledgement for the extra pains you have put into teaching my son. Tut, man!' said he, as I protested. 'Harry has told us all about that. I assure you the youngster came near to wearying us, last holiday, with praise of you.'"

"And so he did," Plinny here interrupted. "That is to say, sir-I-I mean we were only too glad to listen to him."

"I thank you, ma'am." Captain Branscome bowed to her gravely. "I will not deny that the Major's words gave me pleasure for the moment. He, for his part, appeared to be quite another man. 'Twas as if between leaving me and returning to the summer-house a load had been lifted from his mind. He counted out the guineas, locked the cashbox again, lit his pipe, and then, seeming to recollect himself, reached down a clean one from a stack above the doorway, and insisted upon my filling and smoking with him. 'Twas a long while since I had tasted the luxury of tobacco. We talked of old days on the Londonderry, of Sir John Moore's last campaign, of Falmouth and the packets, of the peace and the overthrow of Bonaparte's ambitions; or, rather, 'twas he that talked and questioned, while for me 'twas pleasure enough, and a pleasure long denied me, to sit on terms with a well-read gentleman and listen to talk of a quality which-"

"Which differed from that of the Rev. Philip Stimcoe's," suggested Miss Belcher, as he hesitated. "Proceed, sir."

"I shall add, madam, that the Major very kindly invited me to sleep that night under his roof. I could pick up the coach in the morning (he said). But this I declined, professing that I preferred the night for travelling, and maybe, before tiring myself, would overtake one of Russell's waggons and obtain a lift; the fact being that, grateful though I found it to sit and converse with him, my conscience was accusing me all the while.

"Towards the end of our talk he had let slip by accident that he was by no means a rich man. The money from that moment began to burn in my pockets, and I had scarcely shaken hands with him and taken my leave-which I did just as the sun was sinking behind the plantation across the lane-before his guineas fairly scorched me. I held on my way for a mile or more. You may have observed, ladies, that I limp in my walk? It is the effect of an old wound. But, I declare to you, my limp was nothing to the thought I dragged with me-the recollection of the Major's face and the expression that had come over it when I had first confessed my errand. All his subsequent kindness, his sympathy, his hospitality, his frank and easy talk, could not wipe out that recollection. I had sold something which for years it had been my pride to keep. I had forced it on an unwilling buyer. I had taken the money of a poor man, and had given him in exchange-what? You remember, ladies, those words of Shakespeare- good words, although he puts them into the mouth of a villain-that:

"' . . . He who filches from me my good name

Robs me of that which not enriches him

And makes me poor indeed.'

"No one had filched my honour-I had sold it to a good man, but yet without enriching him, while in the loss of it I knew myself poor indeed. At the second milestone I turned back, more eager now to find the Major and get rid of the money than ever I had been to obtain it.

"My face was no sooner turned again towards the cottage than I broke into a run, and so good pace I made between running and walking that it cannot have been more than an hour from my leaving the garden before I arrived back at the head of the lane. The evening was dusking in, but by no means dark as yet, even though a dark cloud had crept up from the west and overhung the plantation to the right. I looked down the lane as I entered it, and again-yes, ladies, as surely as before-I saw a man cross it from the garden gate and step into the plantation!

"Who the man was I could not tell, the light being so uncertain. Although he crossed the lane just where Coffin had crossed it and disappeared in just the same manner, I had an impression that he was not Coffin, and that his gait, for one thing, differed from Coffin's. But I tell you this for what it is worth: I was startled, you may be sure, and hurried down the lane after him even quicker than I had hurried after the first man; but when I came to the stile, he, like the first man, had vanished, and within the plantation it was impossible by this time to see more than twenty yards deep.

"Again I turned and crossed the lane to the garden gate. A sort of twilight lay over the turf between me and the summer-house, and beneath the apple-trees skirting my path to it on the left you might say that it was night; but the water at the foot of the garden threw up a sort of glimmer, and there was a glimmer, too, on the vane above the flagstaff. I noted this and that, though my eyes were searching for Major Brooks in the dark shadow under the pent of the summer-house.

"Towards this I stepped; but in the dark I must have walked a few feet wide of the straight line, for I remember brushing against a low-growing branch of one of the apple-trees, and this must have caught in my eyeglass-ribbon and torn it, for when I came to fumble for them a few seconds later to help my sight, the glasses were gone.

"By this time I had reached the summer-house and come to a halt, three paces, maybe, from the doorstep. 'Major Brooks!' I called softly, and then again, but a thought louder, 'Major Brooks!'

"There was no answer, ladies, and I turned myself half about, uncertain whether to go back up the lane and knock at the front door or to seek my way to the house through the garden. Just then my boot touched something soft, and I bent and saw the Major's body stretched across the step close beside my ankles. I stooped lower and put down a hand. It touched his shoulder, and then the ground beneath his shoulder, and the ground was moist. I drew my hand back with a shiver, and just at that moment, as I stared at my fingers, the heavy cloud beyond the plantation lifted itself clear of the trees and let the last of the daylight through-enough to show me a dark stain running from my finger-tips and trickling towards the palm.

"And then, ladies-at first I thought of no danger to myself, but ran for the gate, still groping as I went, for my eyeglasses; stumbled across the lane somehow, and over the stile in vain chase of the man I had glimpsed two minutes before. I say a vain chase, for I had not plunged twenty yards into the plantation before-short-sighted mole that I am-I had lost the track. I pulled up, on the point of shouting for help, and with that there flashed on me the thought of the Major's guineas in my pocket. If I called for help I called down suspicion on myself, and suspicion enough to damn me. How could I explain my presence in the garden? How could I account for the money-straight from the Major's cashbox?"

Captain Branscome paused and gazed around upon us as if caught once more in that terrible moment of choice. Miss Belcher met his gaze and nodded.

"So the upshot was that you ran for it? Well, I can't say that I blame you. But, as it happens, if you had stood still the cashbox might have helped to clear you; for it was found next morning, half a mile away in the brook, below my lodge-gate."

"And there's one thing," said Plinny, "we may thank God for, if it is possible to be thankful for anything in this dreadful business. The murderer, whoever he was, got little profit from his crime, for I know pretty well the state of your poor father's finances, Harry; and if, as Captain Branscome tells us, he had taken ten guineas from the box, there must have been very few left in it."

"My good soul," said Miss Belcher, "the man wasn't after money! He wanted the map this Captain Coffin had left in the Major's keeping. That's as plain as the nose on your good, dear face. If the map happened to be in the cashbox, and I'll bet ten to one it wasn't-"

"You may bet ten thousand to one!" I cried. "It was never in the cashbox at all. It was wrapped up in the flag my father carried into the house."

"Bless the boy," said Miss Belcher; "he's not half a fool, after all! Yes, yes-where is the flag?"

"On the flagstaff," said I. "I hoisted it there this morning."

"Eh?"

"And here," I panted, jumping up in my excitement, "here is Captain Coffin's map!"

I heard Miss Belcher breathing hard as I lugged out the oilskin packet, tore open the knotted string which bound it, and, drawing forth the parchment, spread it, with shaking fingers, on the table.

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